Nila Holden, artisan baker and biscuit maker, views her way through snappy, crunchy offerings and 3D biscuit constructions, and notes a particular disdain from one judge for shop-bought fondant…
Another cracking episode last night, focusing on biscuits. Paul and Mary were on top form, with much snapping and crunching of naked cowboy cookies, not to mention ‘fondantgate’ - the complete look of horror on Mary’s face with a contestant using shop-bought fondant - but more about that later.
There are so many biscuit products - or cookies as our American cousins like to call them - on the market today and they come in so many different shapes and sizes, each baked in its own sweet way. Whether baking biscuits professionally or for pleasure, the key to success is knowing if the cookie should snap, crumble or crunch. Of course you need to know your dough - does it contain nuts, dried fruit or berries? Then it probably needs to be dropped onto a tray and, if it’s a short sugar dough, it’ll need rolling out and cutting with a cutter, without over-kneading or overworking. This is easier to achieve in a professional kitchen with mixers rollers and such, but trickier to pull off at home.
The episode kicked off with the savoury biscuit challenge - biscuits to enjoy with cheese (while listening to Abba and indulging in all-night fondue sessions according to Sue). Although sweet biscuits have the lion’s share of the market in the UK, the savoury biscuit market is on the rise globally, with consumers increasingly desirous of savoury snacks that are baked not fried.
Again, this week’s contestants used an astonishing array of flavours to bring something different to their biscuits, with Chetna using her mother’s fenugreek & carom cracker recipe, Jordan - a sourdough, chilli & cheese concoction, but former merchant seaman Norman opted for a traditional but robust-looking farthing biscuit - a safe haven in any biscuit storm.
The key when baking savoury biscuits - as with any other recipe - is to really think about what you will be pairing your bake with. When partnered with cheese, a savoury biscuit’s main purpose is to enhance the cheese eating experience. So any flavourings should not only complement each other but any cheese they might be served with. Getting the right balance and exact quantity of flavour, whether it’s sea salt, rosemary or chive is crucial. And it’s so easy to get it wrong - as with Iain’s unfortunate overly pungent Za’atar & fig biscuits or rather underwhelming versions like Enwezor’s pumpkin & sunflower biscuits.
The next challenge was for contestants to produce a batch of 18 Florentines from Mary’s much-lauded recipe. Cue much head scratching (or in one contestant’s case - beard scratching!). The key, when producing biscuits in large quantities, as in any production kitchen, is that the size, bake and colour have to be spot-on and of an equal size - “uniform like a line of soldiers” to use Mary’s words - no mean feat when you’re hand-rolling and under pressure. To ensure baked biscuit perfection, in our bakery we’d be using our wonderful dough rollers. And speaking of time spent in the oven - another crucial factor as Luis found out - even three minutes can mean the difference between mediocrity and biscuit perfection. Baking Florentines, particularly as they contain delicate ingredients such as nuts, dried fruit & berries and due to their high sugar content, is a good illustration of just how important it is to know your ovens. Each oven is different and bakes slightly differently; some bake faster than others, some may have heat spots. Not knowing precisely how your oven bakes can lead to burnt cookies on the outside of your tray and undercooked cookies in the middle.
Next came an amazing showstopper challenge: to produce a 3D biscuit scene with the stipulation that all cookies must stand up! What an exciting and fun challenge with lots of scope to show your creative side, but one that would test the skills of any professional, let alone an amateur baker, calling for design flair, piping, baking, assembling and all within four hours.
The wow factor
We’d have a ball with this challenge, as we’ve been working on 3D cookies for the past few months and have designed a 3D Christmas tree and cookie birdhouses for our Christmas range, which will launch in September. For cookie construction we always use a more European-based sugar cookie recipe, which is a bit more crunchy and less crumbly than its British butter cookie counterpart.
The trick to constructing 3D cookies is to spend the time at the beginning to use just the right dough - robust yet delicious tasting and to make good shapes. We would always use cutters rather than templates. Templates are great, but when you are producing in quantities, you need the precision and sharp edges that are crucial when assembling, that only cutters will give you.
As for decorating the 3D masterpieces? Well, I was pleasantly surprised to see how ingenious some of the assembly was, relying on interlocking pieces rather than the traditional royal icing ‘cement’-type glue. And there were lots of lovely fondant covered designs - which is something we specialise in. But unfortunately for Enwezor, Mary’s disdain for his use of shop-bought fondant, and is his soggy-bottomed biscuits spelled disaster and, sadly, exit from the show.
You can view Nila’s blog with her own baking tips and recipes here www.nilaholden.co.uk